Re: Shoeshine Boys Do not Make Journalists

Tue, 22 Jun 2010 Source: Tawiah, Benjamin

The other day, we told a three-page story around the Ivan Illich truism that most professions are conspiracies against the laity. Otherwise, why would Felicity Boakye-Danquah, a budding writer, be so presumptuous to judge that “charlatans and pretenders, with the unflinching backing of their sponsors, [find] it easy to hijack the noble profession for their own parochial interests”, and also succeed “in carving a certain image for the profession?” This, Felicity observes, “has effectively distorted the true image of journalism in the country and the general quality and depth of journalism today leaves much to be desired.” The profession has become so cheap that Felicity tells us “of a shoemaker who has quit his trade to join the inky fraternity for good business deals[,] as an hour or two at assignment can earn him a minimum of Gh¢ 10, an amount better than eight hours of hustle and bustle.” She also talks of soli and food grabbing gatecrashers who “will go to the extent of fighting any impediment in their way[,] including organizers of programmes when they are told they were not invited to such functions.” In the end, Felicity does well to extend some warm felicitations to the Ghana Journalists Association, warning that “the earlier something was done about this, the better, to save journalists and the country from this shameful episode of journalism for food and soli.”

Felicity made these observations in an article that appeared in the Daily Dispatch and on ghanaweb.com last week, about the sinking image of journalism in Ghana. I am tempted to think that Felicity is a journalist, because somewhere in her story, she mentions “a colleague journalist” who had told her the lie about how quick shoeshine boys are making a good living as journalists. Having received some education on the art of newsgathering, I would have expected Felicity to treat that shoeshine revelation as big news, and go ahead to do a feature on that. But Felicity was so consumed with the sinking image of Ghanaian journalism that she at once assumed the role of an umpire, to say the things that even journalism professors would rather write in academic journals than put in the newspapers. Did Felicity do any checks, as her trade recommends, let alone going back to check after she had rechecked and double-checked her facts? She has relied on a single source to make a huge statement about a profession she herself says was “practiced and held in high esteem some time past.” Meanwhile, Felicity had in the fourth paragraph of her story written that “a careful look at the profession shows that the media is covering mostly what is not news, but ordinary everyday gossip and publishing of stories in a manner that defies journalistic principles.” Wouldn’t it have been nice for Felicity to show us what news looks like and say a thing or two about the journalistic principles?

Before we discuss Felicity’s appreciation of news and her understanding of how the parts of speech work, let’s ask what moved her to open a feature with a statement like this: “Journalism in Ghana appears to have been reduced to a pedestrian vocation that is open for mass participation as though there are no rules or values guiding the practice.” You see, Felicity, before you would ever consider passing this kind of judgment, you would have studied the journalism practice in some other countries, (we could limit ourselves to the sub-region) and weighed the impact of certain national peculiarities on the practice. You would also want to understand how the profession developed in a particular setting, and how the setting (both in place and time) itself has shaped the practice today. There are a thousand things you would want to consider. Even after going through all that, it is still quite presumptuous, if not dangerous, to stick it out that a vocation has become pedestrian. Next time, Felicity would do well to just observe and report what she sees than take bold steps to speak the consensus of all professionals on one trade.

Well, we could pardon Felicity’s errors in her report, because it appears she is a young journalist. But it is particularly because she did well to have referred to journalism as a vocation, and in some parts, a profession. Journalism is a profession only in the narrow sense that if affords some people in the trade a livelihood; Felicity would soon come to learn that journalism is actually a calling, and not just a profession, like medicine or accounting. When public relations and advertising present attractive opportunities for journalists, those who stick with the trade, soli or no soli, are the ones called to the profession. Perhaps, if she knew this, she would have hesitated in saying that journalism is “open for mass participation.” In her hearts of hearts, does Felicity believe that anybody and everybody can be a journalist? If that was her assumption, then she rendered it flawed when she signed on at the Ghana Institute of Journalism or wherever she had her training, to study to become a journalist. And here, the operational word is ‘become’. You are not a journalist because you went through two or three years of training at GIJ or the School of Communication Studies. You are a journalist because, in the thinking of celebrated British journalist, Andrew Marr, you have that native nosiness and an itchy curiosity for news, and can report a good story about the world around us.

Even here, let’s make a few things clear. Not every good writer would make a journalist, in much the same way that not every man who always wins an argument with his sisters would make a good lawyer. For, law is not just about arguments. When Felicity finds time, she should check Uzor Maxim Uzoatu’s account of why Wole Soyinka chose not to become a journalist. Obviously, his talent was too huge for a daily newspaper that is read today and forgotten tomorrow; he needed a medium that would immortalise his lofty thoughts and build him into the institution he is today. But it is still funny how young Soyinka, when invited to report a sample market scene story, as part of the recruitment routines of a Nigerian newspaper, ended up writing volumes, ten times what they had asked for, as if he had been tasked to write the entire edition of the paper for that day. All the applicants finished and left the premises of the media organisation, leaving Soyinka and the invigilator, his pen still oozing lively information about the grandparents and the genealogy of the people in the market commotion scenario. He had to be stopped. But what was for Soyinka a choice, would be a veritable Golgotha for many a writer. Felicity shouldn’t assume that writing is such an easy job; it is hard work. It requires more than just knowing how to use the semicolon. She would be shocked to know that there are a lot of journalists these days, but the numbers are not as huge as it appears.

Felicity also spoke of the abuse of copyright laws in the trade, but she failed to particularise or exemplify. Is it that journalists do it on purpose or they just do not know that they are abusing the laws? Mark her use of the words ‘forget’ and ‘refuse’ in the following quote: “Journalists forget to credit sources on line, even though they are profiting from other people’s work, they refuse to acknowledge them where it is due. If the law comes up hard on intellectual thieves, it will serve a good purpose and put bad journalists on check.” In one breath, she tells us journalists forget to acknowledge sources. In another, she is quite sure that they refuse to do it. She would have done us a favour by telling us exactly what the law says, and give us some examples of how it has been used in the past. Well, I can assure Felicity that Ghanaweb.com, where I read her article, duly acknowledged where they got it from: The Daily Dispatch. If Felicity is referring to these online sharing agreements, or she is talking about a situation where an article that was originally posted to a particular website in Accra could find its way into a newspaper in the United States, then it is not a particularly serious development, as far as the newspaper acknowledges their source, based on some agreements. Of course, I agree with Felicity that there are some copyright abuses in the system that must be checked.

Oh, I promised I was going to say a thing or two about Felicity’s English. If Felicity had done what renowned British scientist and author of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, recommends, she would have avoided many of the grammatical errors and typos in her story. Dawkins lets his wife read over his essays to him. You are in a better position to know how good your work is when you hear it read loud to you by somebody. When you read it yourself, you are likely to gloss over the mistakes. Felicity could ask her husband or boyfriend to help with that. I recently stopped my wife from reading to me because she is beginning to think just like me. And she likes to plant a kiss here and there between paragraphs. How did Felicity miss the singular verb (is) in “A common characteristic of both groups are that they will go ….” She should also remember that where the subject is plural as in “Renowned journalists”, the lexical verb ‘have’ is what we use, not ‘has’, as if we were talking of a particular journalist. Even though it appears very basic, Felicity would always remember that usually, except in the case of irregular verbs, we say ‘I want’ but he or she ‘wants’. She should also be clear when talking about things that happened in the past, unless she wants to state a case in the historic present. She could have done better with “as he has spotted him at a number of programmes prior to the one he was attending.” Also, ‘gentlemen’ is always spelt as one word, and not ‘gentle men.’

The interesting thing about Felicity is that when she wrote to condemn the “shameful episode of journalism for food and soli,” after earlier describing some journalists as “greedy monsters” whose “pre occupation” is ‘soli’, she didn’t come across as somebody who would waste time to drink or eat anything after covering an assignment. But, soon she is hungry and writes: “I happened to be taking a bite at one such function.” From one bite, then another, then another: That is how greedy monsters are made. It is these greedy monsters who are contributing to “The sinking image of journalism in Ghana.”

As I did with Samuel Obour, a young journalist who, like Felicity, also called our journalism pathetic, I would, for the umpteenth time, recommend Nii Moi Thompson’s “Wither Ghanaian Journalism” for Felicity’s education. It says most of the things she wanted to say, but in a very different way. I told Obour that there is a way to critique a trade without criticising it. That is the kind of thing Dr Thompson did. Felicity would realise that in her long article (good length, though), she did not say anything good about Ghanaian Journalism. Even Sodom and Gomorrah had a few good things to talk about. If Nii Moi’s appears too intimidating for her, because of the man’s intellectual stature, she should google something I wrote years ago: “Journalism: The Beauty and the Beast.”

Benjamin Tawiah

Ottawa, Canada quesiquesi@hotmail.co.uk

Columnist: Tawiah, Benjamin